by Kimi Eisele
How do you re-animate a community on the U.S.-Mexico border struggling against the complexities of immigration policy, limited job opportunities, and the drug trade?
You look to the heritage, culture, and community cooperation already in place there.
That’s our working philosophy at the Southwest Folklife Alliance (SFA). We believe creative placemaking isn’t always about making a place but revealing what’s already there and highlighting it new and communal ways.
In our work at SFA, we often define folklife as “beauty hidden in plain view,” or the everyday things we see, make, say, and do that reveal who we are. We started working in Nogales, Arizona, on the U.S.-Mexico border because we saw that the larger narratives of immigration and drug trafficking were obscuring much of the beauty and culture.
Unearthing the Story
Using the tools of the folklorist—observing, listening, and interviewing—we conducted a needs assessment in Nogales. What we found was a community facing real challenges, but also a community already engaged in a process of re-imagining itself.
The most prominent landscape feature in this town of 20,000 is the border fence, rising up 20 feet high in places. Just on the other side is Nogales, Sonora, ten times the size of the U.S. town. Economic and cultural ties between the two towns are strong—together they’re often called “Ambos Nogales.” For decades, people have crossed from one side to the other to shop, work, or go to school. Every year more than 300,000 trucks cross into the U.S. from Mexico, and over 65 percent of US winter produce is processed in Nogales, AZ.
But NAFTA and 9/11 dealt big blows to cross-border retail and local entrepreneurship, and those impacts linger. The main jobs in Nogales, AZ are in produce or law enforcement. Many young people leave after high school, and if they return, they come back to limited opportunities.
Residents and leaders told us they want to see more creative leadership and youth empowerment. They want more arts and cultural activities. They want older generations and younger generations to connect. They want young people to stay in Nogales, or to return once after college and access local economic opportunities. They want the rest of the world to know that the story of Nogales is more than what the media reports.
We found business incubation programs already in motion—through farmers’ markets and support for individual craftspeople. We found dedicated teachers bringing art and music to their students. We found successful efforts underway to bring activity back to downtown, including renovation of an empty hotel into housing for seniors and plans for the ghostly Morley Avenue, once a bustling retail area. We found youth engaged in music making, gardening, and innovative dialogues. We found tortilla makers, boot makers, musicians, muralists, retail store owners, produce brokers and sellers—generations of families involved in many kinds of folklife, from food and foodways to visual culture to music and dance to occupational folklore.
Here is a short video featuring some of the Nogalenses we spoke with and with whom we are now partnering.
Bolstering Local Efforts
VozFrontera will celebrate this energy in Nogales and bring additional activities specifically for young people. Eventually, VozFrontera will be housed in the former residence of Raul Castro, Arizona’s only Mexican-American governor and education advocate. It will become a borderlands center for youth engagement, leadership, and local arts incubation drawing on area’s rich folklife, artisanal industries, and hybrid contemporary forms.
Rooted in the practice of gathering and sharing community stories, VozFrontera will offer: 1) Documentary arts mentoring with youth (writing, photography, video, radio, music); 2) Artist-in-residence programs for professional artists and scholars to realize projects with youth and residents; and 3) Co-working lab space for young leaders and entrepreneurs.
The program is a partnership with the University of Arizona (our affiliate institution), which was gifted the Castro House in 2016, and several partners in Nogales who emerged during our research. VozFrontera will also invest in local emerging leaders towards sustainability and longevity in the community.
We believe we secured ArtPlace funding because of local endeavors already in motion and our strong partners, who have what it takes to amplify youth and community voices in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.
Kimi Eisele is the Communications Manager for the Southwest Folklife Alliance.